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Zero tolerance for bullying?

Mayencourt says government-sponsored safe schools bill coming

NO RESPONSE: Despite repeated calls, Xtra West's efforts to ask BC education minister Shirley Bond about her intentions regarding a safe schools act were yet again unsuccessful. Credit: Xtra West Files

BC’s provincial government is poised to introduce a Safe Schools Act of its own, an excited Lorne Mayencourt told Xtra West following the government’s Feb 13 throne speech.

But while the Vancouver-Burrard MLA says he’s “really excited about that,” he’s unable to confirm whether anti-discrimination policies specifically addressing sexual orientation and gender identity will be part of a government-piloted version of the bill.

“I believe so, [but] until the bill is actually put in front of me, I can’t really say,” Mayencourt concedes.

He insists, however, that “it’s significant it was mentioned in the throne speech, which is a pretty public way of saying that the government recognizes this is a serious problem.”

A reading of the throne speech reveals that the government plans to introduce new legislation to “broaden the mandate of school boards.” It also refers to amendments requiring all school boards to establish codes of conduct that “meet provincially set standards and that institute zero tolerance of bullying in BC’s schools.”

But the speech does not spell out which provincially set standards it’s referring to, nor whether they will specifically prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Mayencourt, who tried unsuccessfully on two previous occasions to bring forward his own Safe Schools Act as a private member’s bill, says he has persistently advocated for specific language dealing with homophobia, and feels “pretty good” that education minister Shirley Bond is “as excited about this [opportunity] as I am.”

“We’ve had a lot of conversations over the last several weeks and I think this is one of the reasons that led to it being put [at] such high priority in the speech from the throne. She is going to include me in the discussions on how the bill is crafted,” he asserts.

“The bill is going to be a different bill because it is a government bill,” he acknowledges, adding that “the important thing for me is that elements of social justice are incorporated in that act.”

Mayencourt dropped plans to re-introduce his own private member’s bill after the throne speech, in anticipation of the government bill he claims is now coming.

The gay MLA says it’ll be “a few weeks” before that bill is ready, but is “really hoping we see that in the middle of March.”

Despite repeated calls, Xtra West’s efforts to get Minister Bond on record about the government’s intentions with regard to safe schools legislation were yet again unsuccessful.

Queer education activist Jane Bouey says she does not see anything in the throne speech that covers the Safe Schools Act as she understands it.

But, she says, if Mayencourt’s optimism about government involvement is justified, she hopes the final bill reflects the language he adopted in his own bill. “I would welcome it, [but] I have no reason to assume that from what has been said,” says Bouey.

“What I liked in the previous bill was that it was more comprehensive than earlier versions. It talked about sexual orientation and gender identity, and the perception of these,” she notes.

Anti-homophobia consultant Glen Hansman agrees, adding there’s “no real point” to government legislation if it does not specifically target harassment and discrimination on the basis of all the protected grounds covered by the BC Human Rights Code, including protection for transgender and transsexual members of school communities.

Generic anti-bullying policies will be ineffective, he suggests, because homophobia and transphobia will continue to be ignored.

“The Safe Schools Task Force was long ago,” he says, “and a comprehensive, inclusive safe schools policy from the ministry that will make school districts address sexism, racism, ableism, transphobia and homophobia is far beyond overdue.”

School districts like the Central Okanagan could really use some government leadership, says Paula Miles, pointing to an 80-person survey she recently conducted that found most respondents hear homophobic comments like that’s so gay, fag, homo, dyke, or lesbo at school.

Homophobia is a pervasive problem in this region, Miles says. Such remarks create an intimidating atmosphere that has forced some students to opt for home schooling rather than confront the harassment and taunts in a formal education setting, she adds.

Despite this, she says, there remains “a veil of secrecy” around all issues pertaining to homophobia and the queer community. “Nothing formally happens on this topic. Individual teachers do what they can on an ad hoc basis. There are no gay-straight alliances in schools here.”

The Central Okanagan is not alone. According to Steve LeBel of BC’s Gay and Lesbian Educators group, the vast majority of school districts need strong leadership from government to compel them to protect all students.

While a few school districts are likely to modify their existing policies to be inclusive of queer youth, he says, the big concern is about the districts that have “absolutely no intention of doing so-at least, not in a meaningful way.”

So far, only five out of BC’s 60 school districts have pushed forward with their own anti-homophobia policies without government direction. A few more mention sexual orientation in their general harassment policies. The rest are silent.

Mayencourt says what the “progressive” school districts have developed will, at the very least, be a starting point for creating legislation he hopes will be ready for implementation for the September 2007 school year.

“I know that there will be language used that is going to encompass the principles behind the [BC] Human Rights Code and I’m going to be sitting at the table with government pushing for the best possible bill,” he says.

Even if the government orders BC’s school boards to explicitly prohibit homophobic harassment in their districts, Hansman says the legislation won’t accomplish much without the funding to back it up.

For a safe schools act to be worth its salt, he says, it must make provision for the training of school community members in leadership positions, allocate sufficient funding so that resources and response services are available, and put mechanisms in place to ensure the legislation is followed.

“The Ministry of Education, under both the Liberals and the NDP, has been good with coming up with new initiatives, but completely unreliable in adequately funding and sustaining them,” Hansman says.